Thursday, October 11, 2007

But Mexicans do thumb BlackBerrys

Andrea Mandel-Campbell, author of Why Mexicans Don't Drink Molson, gave the first talk of Laurier's Innovation & Entrepreneurship speaker series tonight at the Schlegel Centre for Entrepreneurship.

Mandel-Campbell paints a depressing picture of Canadian business from a global perspective, pointing out that Canada has never produced one of the world's top 100 brands -- something that Switzerland has done a few times, even with population about three-fifths of Ontario's. We're not home to any "globally-relevant" multinational companies, generally show little entrepreneurial spirit, and are much better at coming up with ideas than in making money off them.

There's no disputing that Canada has a pretty sad track record. Run through the list of Canada's largest corporations and there are very few which have products well-known outside of this country. That's certainly not a new observation, and Mandel-Campbell seemed to be more interested in using it to promote a cardboard-conservative ideology than in offering suggestions about what can be done to make things better. It came as no surprise to learn that she used to work at the National Post or that The Fraser Institute was quick to have her as a featured speaker.

Mandel-Campbell didn't say anything about lowering taxes during her one-hour talk, but she managed to hit most of the other standard talking points: Canadian businesses are mollycoddled by government protectionism, we need fewer regulations on foreign ownership, our country suffers from dysfunctional attitudes toward money where people are more interested in dividing up wealth created by others than generating it themselves (she was not pleased that Tommy Douglas came out on top on the CBC's The Greatest Canadian competition a few years ago). She even said that almost all of Canada's great companies were "built, funded, and managed" by Americans that we bribed to come here. You've heard most of this many times before (and I'd want to look into that claim about Americans -- it sounded far too universal; I can think of iconic Canadian businesses that had no American involvement).

She made several references to Molson, Noranda, and Dofasco, but, surprisingly, never mentioned RIM, even though she was giving her speech about a three minute drive from RIM's headquarters. The BlackBerry just missed making the list of world's top 100 brands this year, which -- if Mandel-Campbell is correct -- would have been a first for Canada. Now, RIM is not a rebuttal to Mandel-Campbell. It's an anomaly in Canada (as is/was Nortel) and really is the exception that proves the rule. But it's one that needed to be acknowledged in Waterloo, especially when one of your key messages is that Canada has never produced a top global brand. It would probably be more helpful for the next generation -- which Mandel-Campbell said is the her primary target -- to celebrate RIM and try to understand how it became a global success without being acquired. It's certainly too late for Molson, Noranda, Dofasco -- or any companies in their industries -- to be our flag bearer and inspiration.

Canada's record in building global brands can be embarrassing, infuriating, and depressing. Mandel-Campbell gave a pleasant enough talk, even if it seemed heavier on ideology than information or insight. She certainly came across much better than her two would-be debaters who asked the first two "questions" during the Q&A. A thumbs-up to Benson Honig for moving things along.

Overall, it was a successful event and was certainly worth attending. Up next in the series is NuComm International CEO RĂ©al Bergevin on November 7.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A look back at Entrepreneur Week

The fourth annual Entrepreneur Week wrapped up Friday with a talk by Jim Estill. I missed Doug Hall, the guy from the first season of American Inventor, but attended all the other "Startup Camp" sessions, as well as BarCampWaterloo. Larry Borsato provided some terrific summaries in his blog entries, and there will be video (edited) of all the presentations available online soon, so I won't review the content.

There were early-stage entrepreneurs from a wide age range -- which I was glad to see, since it's been a peeve of mine when entrepreneurs are segregated by age. You can start a company at any age, and there were entrepreneurs born in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s all sitting together (maybe some older than that, and it won't be long until the 1990s are represented). The speakers also covered the same age range, from their 20s to their 50s.

Almost all of the sessions addressed a key topic for startups. There were sessions on life as an entrepreneur (that's what it was supposed to be, anyway), financing, marketing, and business strategy, which are all essential. I'm sure some people would have liked to see other topics covered too -- Web 2.0 or n.0 is always popular -- but you can only shoehorn so many events into one week and this was as full as I'd want it to be (and Web 2.0 was a major topic of this year's Tech Leadership Conference).

The two Thursday sessions were notable for presenting viewpoints that were about 180 degrees removed from each other: Tim Jackson in the morning and Bill Tatham in the afternoon. Guess which one didn't have a very high regard for VCs.

Tim's term sheet session was interesting, and one I'd recommend that everybody watch once it's online. You may not agree with all his conclusions, but it's useful for entrepreneurs to understand why investors ask for -- or demand -- certain terms.

Using the label "Startup Camp" might not have been the best choice, since that name is becoming strongly associated with unconference-style events, which Entrepreneur Week wasn't. Initially, it was being called "Startup Bootcamp" and that was shortened. In the end, Entrepreneur Week wasn't a bootcamp (maybe the Doug Hall event was, amd Tim Jackson's session was very interactive) and it wasn't an unconference (although BarCampWaterloo was, and it was part of EWeek), and maybe more elements of each could be integrated into next year's events.

It was unfortunate that Ray Simonson's "life an an entrepreneur" event got turned into a session on structured interviews. It was okay, but Ray has great stories to tell, tells them well, and isn't shy about giving his opinions. The audience only got a taste of that near the end. There are few people more enjoyable to listen to than Ray.

Overall, the turnout was very good, and the people who came -- with very few exceptions (other than sponsors) -- were real entrepreneurs and not people looking to sell services to startups. The "Chapter" event had been the anchor of the first three Entrepreneur Weeks, and we saw that you could give it a year off and still have a successful week.

Can Windsor use a non-snub to energize a focus on innovation?

OMG, did you hear? There's a new $100 million "Innovation SuperCorridor" initiative from the province introduced in the budget...